Ralph Watkins

January 8, 2018

Making Change Happen

New Year is a time when we resolve to make changes, as people and as organisations.  But how can we turn our resolution into a reality?

“We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganized. Presumably the plans for our employment were being changed. I was to learn later in life that, perhaps because we are so good at organizing, we tend as a nation to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization. During our reorganizations, several commanding officers were tried out on us, which added to the discontinuity.”

The above quote is often ascribed to Gaius Petronius Arbiter, the author of the ancient Roman work ‘Satyricon’.  In fact, it was probably derived from a passage in the article ‘Merrill’s Marauders: The Truth About an Incredible Adventure’ written by Charlton Ogburn Jr in 1957.

The origin of the quote aside, it is a sentiment that too many of us will recognise.  Change, especially in large organisations, can be seen by employees as something that is imposed from the top, by management; or from the outside, by consultants.  Too often, the changes recommended do not seem to make a real difference, are not implemented in full, or do not last any longer than the times it takes for the next management ‘fad’ or the next group of consultants to come along.

Over time, company employees can naturally become cynical about change programmes that are announced with great fanfare and then fade into nothing…they have seen it all before and it never makes any difference.

Here are some approaches that our consultants have used to make change happen:

  1. Communication: Too much change is imposed a company with no other explanation that ‘the board has decided’ or ‘our consultants have recommended that….’  To happen successfully, employees must understand the rationale behind the change, the goals that will be delivered, and the benefit to themselves.  This often boils down to the truth that organisations that do not evolve and adapt – that do not change – inevitably fail.
  2. Commitment: A commitment to change must become something that is personally embraced by employees.  This means that employees must be comfortable working in an environment where change is the norm, where best practice only exists in its’ current form until a better one comes along.  Achieving this culture is not easy, and does not happen overnight.  It is however, and attitude that must be fostered and indeed required by companies that wish to make change happen.  Without that commitment, change does not stick and you quickly see a reversion to the previous behaviour.
  3. Bravery: The commitment to a culture of change must be utmost in those driving it.  Delivering change is hard, and often means overcoming reservations, inertia or even hostility.  Good communication will help convert most people, but for those who are intransigent? Well, no organisation can afford to keep people who are working against its culture.  Ultimately, those that will not come on board must leave.
  4. Continuity: One of the most common reason that programmes for change fail is that they try to do too much, too quickly.  There may be some circumstances where a business is in dire straits, and requires an aggressive program of change to be pushed through quickly, but such emergency programmes should be the exception.  It is a truism that the ability of an organisation to adapt to change can depend on the rate of that change. Challenging an employee to improve performance by 1% every month is more likely to be embraced than demanding a 10% improvement overnight – and in one year you have a motivated employee performing 11.3% bette, rather than a disgruntled employee delivering 10% better (or, if they have resigned, not at all).

Changes imposed are temporary fixes at best. In the long term, they do not work.  This is because change is not something that can be done to an organisation.  It must be an integral part of its’ culture.  Effective change is not something that disrupts the continuity of an organisation, it is the continuity of the organisation.

This does not mean there is no place for consultants or an outside perspective.  At Vallum our approach is about helping an organisation to build a culture of change for themselves, not simply provide a prescription to follow that runs out when the consulting contract does.

Venture further with Vallum. Get in touch on mkamara@vallum.co.uk or visit www.vallum.co.uk to find out how we could help.

Ralph Watkins